More waterways likely protected under new EPA rule — the High Country News #cleanwaterrules

Photo via Jon Harvey
Photo via Jon Harvey

From the High Country News (Elizabeth Shogren)

“Too many of our waters have been left vulnerable to pollution,” President Obama said in a statement. “This rule will provide the clarity and certainty businesses and industry need about which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act, and it will ensure polluters who knowingly threaten our waters can be held accountable.”

Congressional Republicans and some industry groups attacked the rule as an overreach by the administration that would hurt businesses and job growth.

But EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said given the impacts of climate change on water resources, such as drought in the West, “it’s more important than ever to protect the clean water that we have.”

Significantly for the arid West, the rule protects tributaries—no matter how frequently water flows in them—as long as they have signs of flow such as beds, banks and high water marks. Nearby wetlands and ponds also would be protected. Ditches would be protected only if they behave like tributaries…

Some regionally specific water bodies such as prairie potholes and western vernal pools in California would be protected, but most playas would not, according to McCarthy. Playas, flat desert basins that at times become shallow pools, would be covered only if they are within a 100-year floodplain, or are near or flow into a stream, its tributaries or adjacent wetlands…

Opponents and supporters of the rule differed over whether this action expands the scope of the Clean Water Act. Some ephemeral streams, waters and wetlands were federally protected before a 2001 Supreme Court decision, under the justification that migratory birds use them; the new rule, in practice, likely will increase the number of waters and wetlands that receive federal protection…

“For ecologists and people who care about ecosystems, it’s a big victory,” said Ellen Wohl, a professor of geosciences at Colorado State University. “There’s enormous scientific agreement that little streams are very important.”

Streams that do not contain water year-round still play important roles, providing nutrients, sand and organisms for bigger rivers.

“From an environmental perspective, it’s wonderful,” Wohl added. “Scientifically, it’s very obvious these streams need to be protected.”

At issue is whether companies and individuals have to get permits before they pollute, fill in or destroy a waterway or wetland. In the wake of the 2001 and 2006 Supreme Court rulings, decisions about whether permits were necessary often have been subject to lengthy case-by-case consideration. The new rule is supposed to make it clear when wetlands and waterways are protected so case-by-case determinations are needed only rarely.

More Environmental Protection Agency coverage here.

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